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Language Learning Never Stops

Acoustic speech waveform with its associated spectrogram Image, recorded via computer for use in speech process recognition.Speaking and understanding language are probably among the most complicated things we do. Researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, looked at how we learn language and how those language skills change with new experiences.

Most people think that language is something we learn early in life. Underpining this KDI project is the notion that throughout our lifetimes, we constantly learn and relearn how to speak and how to understand. Language skills require constant "tuning up."

This need for continuous learning and relearning of language may explain why computers have not been successful at using language. They cannot adapt their language to changing circumstances, as people do.

Our brains have complex processing systems that enable us to speak and understand language. Because of these processing systems, we can turn thoughts into grammatical sequences of words and can understand the speech of others.

The team of psychologists, linguists, and computer scientists working on this project used experimental techniques to determine how recent everyday experience of speaking and listening affects that ability to construct grammatical knowledge. They looked at how long it takes to learn new words, common mistakes people make when speaking, and eye movements and brain electrical activity that occur when words and sentences are understood.

Acoustic speech waveform alone, recorded via computer for use in speech process recognition.By documenting the adaptability of the human language system, the researchers hope to help develop technology that uses language, such as computers that recognize speech. Computers need to be adaptable in the same way as people are if they are to use language successfully.

The researchers also developed computer models that simulate language processing. With these models, they hope to learn more about how we process language and how to design machines that interact with people through language and speech.

This research has many potential long-term practical applications. Through insights into how children construct knowledge, the investigators hope to be able to design better educational environments for children that will make it easier for them to learn. A better understanding of how language is learned may also help those with language deficits resulting from disease or accidents. It should help pinpoint what part of their language has been affected and allow for targeting of therapeutic services.

Language is what separates us from animals. According to Gary Dell, the principal investigator, "It makes human intelligence, human culture, and all of our accomplishments possible. It is by far the most important way that people use to communicate. Instilling language skills in children, fixing these skills when they are damaged by disease or accident, and making our technology work through language are, therefore, important. Such activities are promoted by research on language and language processing."


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